The fragment of Uniqlo that lives on in Coventry
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Indeed, whether it’s highlighting pre-1995 BHS logos in Carlisle or WHSmith cubes in Redcar, there’s a certain satisfaction to be derived from celebrating the signage that retailers forgot. My latest example is a curious one, however, in that the retailer it belongs to has gone, leaving only the sign behind.
Go to London today, and it’s hard to avoid the Japanese fashion retailer Uniqlo. Following the recent closure of its Croydon shop, the Fast Retailing-owned chain now has twelve stores across the capital, including an Oxford Street flagship and a couple in premises that once housed some of London’s largest branches of Woolworths (above). A popular and UK-wide transactional website supports Uniqlo’s physical store presence, though the current lack of a ‘click and collect’ service seems like a potentially missed opportunity.
Go back to the early 2000s, however, and Uniqlo’s initial entry into the UK market is now held up as one of the worst property decisions by an overseas retailer. From its first store launch in September 2001, Uniqlo had already opened 13 UK stores by the time it announced plans to open a shop in Coventry a year later, and had a target of opening another 50 by September 2004. In the longer term, Uniqlo’s UK boss even suggested that the chain could support as many as 200 stores.
Sadly, it was not to be. Having opened its Coventry store, at 77-79 Lower Precinct, on 20 September 2002, Uniqlo announced just six months later that it would be closing all but five of its 21 UK stores, including the branch in Coventry, after making a £20m operating loss within the first year. Since then, however, Uniqlo has successfully – and rather more steadily – rebuilt the chain, focusing this time on Greater London rather than the disparate provincial locations that proved its initial undoing. Certainly, in retrospect, launching an unfamilar overseas fashion brand into towns such as Solihull, Leicester and Coventry does seem to have been too much too soon.
Today, Coventry’s former Uniqlo unit is occupied by the UK young fashion chain Select. Head to the nearby rooftop car park, however – which, incidentally, affords a fine view of Coventry’s high-rise IKEA store – and you can still see an old Uniqlo illuminated sign. You do have to wonder whose idea it was to merely flip the logo panel around in its light box, rather than taking the whole thing down in the first place.
Uniqlo is probably some way off a return to Coventry, if, indeed, it ever decides to venture outside of London again. For now, nearly a decade after its departure from the city, we’ll just have to make do with this fun and rather odd reminder of the retailer’s first and ill-fated attempt to crack the UK market.